Should New Zealand do away with by-elections?

In New Zealand’s MMP system, there are by-elections if there is a vacancy between general elections in a single-seat district. This is not a mandatory feature of MMP systems; Germany, for example, has no by-elections. A vacancy in a district is filled off the list of the party of the vacating member.

Nigel Roberts, a leading New Zealand expert on elections and electoral systems, writes in the Dominion Post that New Zealand should end the practice of by-elections. In making the case, he refers to a by-election in the constituency of Mt Albert, which is a safe Labour seat. The Labour Party’s candidate in the by-election, Jacinda Ardern, already is an MP, via the party list. Thus the effect of her winning (which she did) is simply to shift the type of mandate she has*, and have her replaced as a list MP by the next available candidate on the Labour list from the preceding election.

Roberts suggests adding a regional component to the lists in order to ensure that the replacement is from the same region as the district in which the vacancy has occurred.

A potential problem with the proposal is the fact that sometimes a by-election really does shift who controls a district and sometimes can even change the nationwide balance between parties (as happened in a recent case in Northland district). Roberts takes the position that this is better avoided, so as not to change potentially the majority for the government. “Party votes cast in general elections should make or break governments – not electorate votes cast in by-elections,” he says.

I am curious to know what readers think of the proposal.

* As well as, sadly, deprive us of my favorite case of a list MP “shadowing” the district-elected MP.

A list order change under Australian Senate rules

The voters in Tasmania have pushed a Labor Senator up the ranks and she will be reelected ahead of other candidates of the party.

Under the old system, most voters cast ticket votes, making the order of election in any given party more closed list than open or STV. Now, voters can rank “below the line” without having to rank all candidates. (Alternatively, they can rank parties “above the line”.)

The article notes that Tasmanian voters have tended to vote below the line more than voters in other states, anyway (probably because they use STV for their state assembly).

There are also some strange ballot rankings above the line. ABC says, quoting Polling analyst Kevin Bonham:

I’ve seen cases like people voting One for the Shooter, Fishers and Farmers, and Two for the Animal Justice Party, two parties that are more or less totally opposed to each other in the views. I saw people voting for the Sex Party, then Family First – one exists to basically negate the other. People are viewing parties in quite a strange way.

Thailand’s new constitution and electoral system

Thailand will be holding a referendum on adopting a new constitution on August 7. A translation of this document is available here. The nation is currently ruled by a military junta, which took power from the elected government in May 2014. If the constitution is adopted, elections will be held in mid-2017 to choose a new civilian government (though that date has been pushed back a fair few times).

The document provides for a bicameral Thai parliament, as has been the norm for the nation’s numerous democratic constitutions. There is a Senate and a House of Representatives. One of the most substantial changes is that the Senate, which was half-elected and half-appointed by the King (I am unclear whether this was to take place on the advice of the government) under the 2007 constitution, and entirely elected under the 1997 one, will now be wholly appointed. This represents a return to pre-1997 practice.

While the Senate only has a delaying role on most legislation, passage at a joint sitting is required for certain ‘organic’ laws, like those on elections, the operation of the Constitutional Court, and the specific method for choosing Senators. This will become especially important in the first term of government, as the first Senate is to be appointed on the advice of the members of the junta.

The House of Representatives is the larger and more powerful of the two houses. As was hinted at by the drafters of the new document, it is to be elected using mixed-member proportional representation, though with closed lists and a remarkably small list tier (150 list/350 constituency).

When this proposal was first put about, I did some simulations of what the House would have looked like following the 2011 election had MMP been used. These estimates are based off a smaller list tier (the size of the one used under MMM in 2011). Any increase in the size of the House is due to overhang.

"Projections
The key loser would be the populist Pheu Thai party, strongly opposed by the coup leaders and the winner would be the Democrat Party, which is considered to have the tacit support of the coup leaders. This would not necessarily be an unfair advantage (given it would give the Democrats a somewhat closer share of seats to their nationwide support), but it would be an advantage nonetheless.

MMP is specifically entrenched in the document. Amendment procedures have also changed; while past documents have allowed a majority of members of the House to make amendments, the new document will require 20% support from opposition parties to make amendments. Needing a super-majority isn’t unusual internationally, but not many constitutions contain quite so many specific electoral provisions as Thailand’s.

What impact increased proportionality will have on Thailand’s democracy is not entirely clear. On one hand, it could require governments to form broader coalitions, which might reduce confrontation in Thai politics and thus less resort to extra-constitutional means. On the other, it could lead to a fragmented House and weak, revolving-door civilian governments, like those that existed before 1997.

It is also worth noting that the elections scheduled for mid-2017, if they take place then, will be held under a law written and approved by the current military-appointed legislature.

Regardless of this constitution, Thailand has clearly got serious problems with military intervention. Previous Constitutions of a similar nature to this one ended in failure. It is unclear whether this one will be any better, though I see it as unlikely.

Does AV mean higher or lower effective number of parties?

There may be a conventional wisdom among people who study comparative electoral systems that the Alternative Vote (also known as Instant Runoff or Majority Preferential) tends to suppress the effective number of parties, compared to plurality (First Past the Post, or FPTP). Or maybe it is just me, but I will admit to having such a notion. After all, Australia is a pretty strict two-party system, isn’t it?

The correct way to approach the question of whether AV means a higher or lower effective number of parties (N) than FPTP is to ask: What we should expect N to be, given the country’s seat product?

As explained by Taagepera (2007) and further elaborated and tested by Li and Shugart (2016), the seat product is a country’s mean district magnitude (M), times its assembly size (S). The Seat Product Model says that the effective number of seat-winning parties (Ns) tends to be the sixth root of this product: Ns=(MS)1/6.

The model is logical, not a mere product of empirical regression work, although regression tests confirm it almost precisely (Li and Shugart, 2016).

When all districts elect just one member, thus M=1, the Seat Product is just the assembly size, S. Hence we take the sixth root of S to get an expectation for Ns. What if we do this for Australia’s House of Representatives? We get an expectation of 2.31.

The actual Ns for Australia’s elections since 1984, the year S was increased from 125 to 148 (subsequently it has increased to 150, a minor change) is… 2.53. However, I believe that figure (I am using Gallagher’s Election Indices) treats the Coalition parties as one in elections before 2010.

In the two most recent elections, Ns has been 2.92 and 3.23. The notes to Gallagher’s Election Indices indicate that for these elections the Liberal Party, the Nationals, and the Liberal National Party of Queensland are treated as separate parties. In my opinion they should be so treated, although I suppose one could have a debate about that.

The actual mean is thus above the expectation for a hypothetical FPTP of the same size assembly. If we use the figure of 2.53, it is obviously not much higher than 2.31 (the ratio is 1.10). However, if we consider the value, at least in recent elections, to be around 3.0, it is about 1.30 times the expectation value.

Contrast this with the UK, where elections of the same period (1987-2010) have a mean Ns=2.30. This is just what we expect for FPTP, right? Not much over 2.0. Not so fast! The UK has a huge assembly, and with S=650 (aprpox., as it varies over the period), we should expect Ns=2.94. The UK actually has one of the more under-fragmented assemblies, according to the Seat Product Model, with this recent-period average being only 78% of expectation.

So how about Canada, where AV is one of the potential reforms being considered? Over a similar period (1984-2011) we get Ns=2.63. With S around 300 during this time, we should get Ns=2.59. So Canada pretty much nails the expectation of the model.

So, should we expect Ns to go down if Canada were to adopt AV, as (what I characterized as) the conventional wisdom would have it? Or should we expect it to go up?

I would not be inclined to say ‘down’. I will just leave it at that for now.

New posts on Australia (and environs)

Four new posts are up today, each of them by either Alan or Henry. They are part of a series that begins now on the upcoming election in Australia (plus an update on Bougainville).

So scroll down, and enjoy. Thank you, Alan and Henry, for being F&V’s correspondents Down Under!